Feasible Methods of Change: Who should lead the transition to renewable energy?

The question of how we are going to transition to renewable energy has been on my mind lately. It’s clear that America has to do something about its carbon footprint, to move away from fossil fuels, but it’s not clear how we are going to achieve this with the current entanglement of the US government and gas and oil companies. Obviously it’s not going to happen overnight, but when someday the US comes to its senses, who will lead? Who should lead?

The way I see it, there are three options:
1. The government, through law and policy
2. Current major energy companies that today produce mainly oil and gas
3. New renewable energy companies (and down with the old ones)

I’ve been thinking about this since learning that two former members of my research group (the Institute for Green Science) have gone to work for an oil and gas company. “Traitors! Quitters!” I though at first; working for them is giving up, essentially signing on with the devil. I know that they both did it for their families, for job security and a very comfortable salary, and I know that both work in the “green/renewables” division of the company. But still, I don’t think I personally could justify working for a company that perpetuates so much environmental destruction. However, gas and oil companies have all the power now (pun intended) and all the infrastructure; wouldn’t the transition to wind and solar be easiest if these companies took the lead?

I think the answer to this is clearly yes, but I am not exactly optimistic about this happening anytime soon considering the power of profits generated by natural gas extraction (which, for the record, is just as bad for the climate as coal because of methane leaks. It is not a “transitional fuel.” Don’t even get me started on the environmental impact of the drilling process.)

We don’t have to speculate if it is even possible for a country-wide transition to renewable energy because Germany has already done it. A closer look at the mechanism of this transition can give us a better idea of how we might go about it.

Over 30% of the energy consumed in Germany comes from renewable sources, and at one point in May 2014 renewable energy covered 74% of consumption. The main push for Germany’s energy transition has been governmental, with policy disfavoring nuclear and fossil fuel energy over renewables. In particular, a feed-in tariff monetarily supports renewable energy producers, but has shifted some of the financial burden to consumers. I don’t understand the economic details of this at all, but it is clear that government is orchestrating this movement.

America, this is it; it’s our turn. Because our domestic fossil fuel corporations have so much money, lobby power, and therefore influence, I think that change must come from them and the government simultaneously. Maybe working to improve the green sector of an existing gas company is the most feasible way to effect change for an individual, but I don’t think I could justify it without a meaningful commitment to the environment and climate from the company or a law requiring it. I have yet to see either of those.

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If you’re interested in climate science and journalism, check out this Kickstarter campaign from The Daily Climate. If you don’t read them already, I’d highly recommend checking out both The Daily Climate and Environmental Health News for top journalism from all over the web on environmental topics.

Also worth a look: Sustainability Pioneers, a Southwestern Pennsylvania-based series of short documentaries visualizing a bridge from our fossil-fuel based economy to an economy based on renewable energy and sustainable living, is premiering in Pittsburgh on October 7th, 2014. The series is produced by Kirsi Jansa, a documentary filmmaker and journalist and the producer of Gas Rush Stories, short documentaries on shale gas exploration. If you are in the area, the event is totally free and open to the public, and if not all of the videos will be available online later this fall.

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